MIT Assistant Professor of Literature Stephanie Ann Frampton has been awarded the prestigious Rome Prize for ancient studies by the American Academy in Rome. The Andrew Heiskell Post-Doctoral Rome Prize will provide funding for Frampton to spend 11 months living and working at the academy, a leading American overseas center for independent studies and advanced research in the fine arts and humanities.
Each year, the Rome Prize is awarded to 30 emerging artists and scholars in the early or middle stages of their careers who represent the highest standard of excellence in their fields. This year’s winners were announced April 18.
“I’m thrilled,” said Frampton, who plans to spend her time in Italy researching the history of writing in the ancient Roman world. “The prize presents a unique opportunity to work hands-on with ancient artifacts and directly with Italian scholars, and to be part of a rich cross-disciplinary community at the academy.”
“Winning the coveted Rome Prize is a powerful testament to Stephanie’s remarkable impact as a scholar, and her potential leadership in the field,” said Deborah Fitzgerald, the Kenan Sahin Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.
The cultural significance of early Roman writing
Frampton, who joined the Literature faculty at MIT in fall 2012, is working on her first book, Alphabetic Order: The Roman Alphabet and the Material Culture of Literature in the Ancient World, which is under contract with Harvard University Press. She said the central question she is addressing is: “How do we get — in just a few centuries — from scratching on pots to Virgil?”
The earliest known uses of the Latin alphabet are for relatively simple inscriptions, such as dedications to the gods on stone and pottery, and date from the 6th century BCE. Adopted from the Etruscans, who in turn took it from the Greeks, this alphabet undergoes a variety of changes in Rome, leading directly to the letter forms, names and alphabetic order we use today. While the cultural significance of alphabetic writing in ancient Greece has received extensive scholarly attention in the last century, the early history of Roman writing is relatively uncharted.
The story of ancient media
“There are artifacts in Italy, not available elsewhere, which are a major part of the story I’m trying to tell. It’s really the story of ancient media,” Frampton said. The Rome Prize will enable Frampton to spend time examining some of the most unusual surviving examples of Roman writing; she especially hopes to work with a major collection of carbonized papyrus scrolls from a horde found in Herculaneum, one of the towns buried by eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
Examining early Roman writing will provide insight into how the ancient Romans thought about the world, she said. For example, Frampton finds clear evidence that authors from Lucretius to Ovid were increasingly concerned about the durability of the written word — both words themselves and the materials on which they were written. “There’s a famous ode by Horace in which he says, ‘I have completed a work more lasting than bronze.’ The work he’s referring to is his book of poems,” Frampton said. “They’re concerned, as much as we are, about the relationship between their media and their mark on history.”
About the Rome Prize and other fellowships
The Rome Prize was established in 1894 and is awarded each year though a national competition. Recent MIT winners of the prize include Assistant Professor William O’Brien Jr. of the Department of Architecture (2012), Associate Professor Keeril Makan of the Music section (2008), Professor Junot Díaz of Comparative Media Studies/Writing (2007), and Associate Professor John Ochsendorf of architecture (2007).
Frampton’s work on Alphabetic Order is also supported by fellowships from the Loeb Classical Library Foundation and the Margo Tytus Visiting Scholars Program at the University of Cincinnati. Frampton has also received an Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship in Critical Bibliography through the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia for 2013-2016. This fellowship provides advanced, hands-on training in the analysis of textual artifacts as well as support for the development of programs related to the history of the book at MIT.
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